The carnival of carnage across the border is shocking in its senseless repetitiveness. The Taliban have launched yet another large-scale offensive. This has garnered pitiably little media coverage, primarily because Afghanistan no longer registers on the collective consciousness, another strumming in a long paean to death. It is only significant for what it is not, another year unmarred by peace.

At the same time, there is something maddening in the American way of war and how progress or lack thereof, is assessed. As the US military marks another lackluster year in a land where it has shed blood, mostly faceless Afghanis and Pakistanis, for nearly two decades, it continues to fall back upon an old screed, that of Vietnam.

“The Taliban was able to mass, plan, and execute an offensive under the noses of the Afghan government, military, police, as well as [Nato’s] Resolute Support. They did this undetected,” according to Bill Roggio, an analyst. We should be familiar with phantom Taliban legions striking along the length and breadth of the country like their predecessors in America’s wars, the Viet Cong, once snuck around in the Tet Offensive of 1968.

There is a similar arithmetic of slaughter; imposing enough military pressure to bring the enemy to the negotiating table. This exercise in futility essentially consists of beating the Taliban just enough, what General Westmoreland in Vietnam dubbed the cross-over point, where enough soldiers were being eradicated that the North Vietnamese could no longer replace them. More bombs are bringing dropped on Afghanistan than ever before but with no discernable change in the situation on the ground. The Taliban repeatedly trumps the official narrative of military progress just like Vietnam once did.

There are similar complaints of corruption. Leaders who are initially dubbed pillars essential to stability gradually mutate into venal potentates desperate to hold onto power promoting nepotism, allowing corruption and crime to flourish and undercutting all the good works of America. It is jarring to see how the trajectories of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam and Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan are closely mirrored. Both were seen as the best option for stability till evidence of corruption in their inner family, poor decision-making and dysfunctional governments became overwhelming. It ended particularly badly for Diem, gunned down in a coup sanctioned by the US.

The notorious cross border sanctuary, the duplicity of regional allies also looms as a bugbear in American military imagination. That if once these sanctuaries were eliminated, turned into a sea of fire, the war would end swiftly as the enemy’s material and manpower would be cut off. By 1972, America had invaded both Laos and Cambodia and mired them in conflict that was uniquely savage, ultimately leading to the rise of Pol Pot and the monstrous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. One sees a gentler reflection in the American drone campaign and constant exhortation for Pakistan to do more.

Vietnamese opponents were framed for the large part as titans who faced off against the Japanese, French before locking horns with America. Afghans are also apparently blessed with the constitution of giant killers, having defeated the British and the Russians. But there is a curious dissonance; all the indomitable fighters are on the opposite side. On the side of the Americans are only ‘ghost soldiers’ who exist only on paper or potential deserters who lack the will to fight poorly led by corrupt officers.

Yet as spirits have ebbed, there is a simultaneous imperative to localize the war, for Afghan forces to ‘stand up’ while their Western allies stand down. Like in Vietnam, it is an admission of failure. South Vietnam forces also underwent ‘Vietnamization’ during the Nixon administration acquiring massive quantities of US armaments that they lacked the capacity to operate. Afghan army and air force are also undergoing ‘Afghanization’ moving away from Soviet style equipment to American small arms, light attack aircraft and transport helicopters. The fact that new UH-60 helicopters and A-29 aircraft are ill-suited to Afghan conditions and lack trained personnel is seemingly of peripheral importance. The writing on the wall is plain to see, the Americans are leaving.

Alas, we are at not the terminal stage of this conflict. Vietnam was lucky in one unfortunate sense that Afghanistan is not; the North had the wherewithal to win outright in an ethnically homogenous country. The Taliban, for the foreseeable future, lack the ability to take control and will face groups who will fight tooth in a repeat of the civil war of the 1990s. So while the sun sets on the American presence, the agony of Afghanistan is far from over.


The writer is a freelance columnist.